Addiction: Why It Is A Disease of the Brain

It’s impossible to discuss recovering from drug addiction without talking about withdrawal and how it works. Depending on the drug, withdrawal can be both physical and psychological. Here we will explain drug withdrawal by focusing on the psychological symptoms. When an individual abuses drugs for an extended period of time, the brain begins to function in a certain way, which makes the user feel a certain way when said drug is introduced. Without this change in chemical balance caused by the drug, the person using the drug can feel moody, lost and out of control. Withdrawal can cause a person addicted to drugs to seek that drug regardless of the negative effects that it will have on their well-being. Withdrawal is very difficult to cope with, and in many cases, leads drug users right back to getting high even though they desperately want to stop. It’s as if an addict’s brain plays tricks on them. This is why addiction is considered a mental health disorder, because it is a disease of the brain and the way we think.

Within the recovery community, there is a fairly high rate of relapse – higher than any other life-threatening condition. Scientists are continually trying to determine new and effective ways to treat drug addiction and help aid individuals on the road to recovery. Some researchers specializing in drug and alcohol treatment have recently begun to redirect their focus on to our DNA. Various new studies reveal that the true cause of drug addiction and addictive behavior may lie in our brain structure.

Science Attempts to Explain Drug Withdrawal

The latest findings show that the DNA of a drug abuser actually changes during withdrawal. Upon closer inspection, scientists hope that these changes may offer promising insight into more effective treatment options. A report from Medical News Today (MNT) reveals that: “Withdrawal from drug use results in reprogramming of the genes in the brain that lead to addictive personality”. This is what from researchers from McGill University and Bar Ilan University found in their experiments. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, this study sought to uncover the effects of certain epigenetic markers like DNA methylation.

According to professor of medicine at McGill, Moshe Szyf, such markers “acts as switches and dimmers of genes- they can be switched on, off, or dimmed – by epigenetic drugs inhibiting DNA methylation and removing methyl marks from these genes.” Because of this, McGill and his colleagues are trying to determine is whether or not addictive behavior could essentially be “stopped.” The hypothesized that this could be accomplished by influencing these epigenetic markers, which are usually triggered by withdrawal. Epigenetic drugs like DNA methylation inhibitor RG108 can be used to attain such influence. If successful, this experimental method could potentially result in a revolutionary new treatment for recovering addicts.

Brief Description of a DNA Addiction Study

First, McGill and his colleagues tested their theory by using animals. The results were encouragingly positive. Fellow researcher Szyf stated that: “we discovered that injecting the drug RG108 just before the animals were exposed to the light cue after the long withdrawal not only stopped the addictive behavior of the animals, it also lasted for a longer period. This suggests that a single treatment with RG108 could reverse or perhaps cure drug addiction.” Additionally, their findings show that changes in DNA methylation were most noticeable during withdrawal and not during actual drug use!

This genetic change could explain the strong compulsion tendencies that occur during recovery. For example, the strong cravings a recovering addict experiences to return to the very substance they’re trying to quit. This study also revealed that it may be time to reconsider some of our existing treatment options. Gal Yadid of Bar Ilan University explains that “the mainstay of current approaches to treating addiction might actually aggravate it..Our research suggests that because the changes in addiction involve numerous genes, our current approaches will continue to fail if we target one or few targets in the brain.” That being said, Yadid also believes that “more research is needed to confirm if these new avenues hold promise.”

Neural Pathways and Addiction

This new direction of research into addiction treatment looks promising. However, more research is still needed to verify results and determine whether a new, effective treatment option can be successfully developed. But Yadid and Szyf are not the only ones re-examining how we understand addiction. As it turns out, another study revealed that certain brain receptors may play a key role in addiction to substances like cocaine. These receptors also greatly contribute to the struggle to recover.

The same report by MNT also stated that “Researchers at the University at Buffalo have discovered a previously unknown neural pathway that can regulate changes made in the brain due to… use, providing new insight into the molecular basis of cocaine addiction.” This discovery shows how the activity of neural pathways known as Activin receptors can influence cocaine addiction and relapse. More specifically, the study showed that  “by manipulating the activity of Activin receptors — receptors found in the brain — the researchers were able to increase or decrease cocaine-taking and relapse behavior in animal models.” Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the University of Buffalo, Dr. David Dietz, explains: “There are changes in the brain caused by drug use that occur and persist, but are only unmasked after withdrawal from a drug — in this case, cocaine…Cocaine use alters the connections between certain neurons through changes in the shape of the cells.”

Is Addiction Genetic? 

This new research has challenged how we previously had come to understand addiction and the recovery process. Science has determined that the Activin receptor controls the ability of cocaine to induce change in neurons. This also means that it can control the ways in which our bodies respond to cocaine. How can it do this? By regulating a number of genes which facilitate that response. This discovery offers new opportunities for potential treatments, especially gene therapies like those being explored by Szyf and Yadid. In fact, the future of recovery may lie in the relationship between genetics and addiction, not just in treating addiction symptoms.

A New Wave of Evidence-Based Addiction Treatment

According to  Dr. Dietz, “understanding this critical pathway will help us pursue new directions in potential pharmacological and gene therapies to prevent drug relapses…If we can control this pathway, we may be able to help prevent relapses in people who have been abstinent from cocaine.” Thus when it comes to understanding the relationship between addiction and genetics, we’re certainly heading on the right track. This new developing knowledge can potentially lead to better treatment options to combat addiction and increase chances of a full recovery. We just need to target addiction at what may very well be the true source – the mind.

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